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What’s the difference between chemical sunscreens and physical blockers?


Are you getting the feeling that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the new gluten? You have probably read about sunscreen needing to have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in your latest health magazine, heard your very health-conscious friend say he only uses sunscreen with zinc oxide or had the woman at the beauty store sell you a bottle of sunscreen by telling you that you needed the bottle with zinc oxide

Everyone seems to be talking about these two things, but are they buzzwords or something you actually need?

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are physical blockers

There are two different kinds of sunscreens – chemical and physical (mineral). Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's rays and physical sunscreens protect your skin from the sun by deflecting or blocking the sun's rays. 

Chemical sunscreens can offer more coverage, but take about 20 minutes after application to effective and some chemical ingredients produce free radicals, which can cause skin damage, irritation, and aging. Many active ingredients in chemical sunscreens have not been FDA approved.

Physical sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, can offer broad-spectrum coverage, work immediately after application and are FDA approved.  Most experts prefer zinc oxide to titanium dioxide for two main reasons:

  • Zinc oxide provides protection against the entire spectrum of UVA and UVB rays.
  • Zinc oxide is great for sensitive skin and is a main ingredient in diaper rash cream. 

One major downside to physical sunscreens is that they tend to be chalky and thick (think of the lifeguards with the white nose, that's physical sunscreen), which is why most sunscreens today offer a combination of chemical and physical ingredients. These combination sunscreens offer the coverage benefits of chemical sunscreens and sensitive skin benefits of physical sunscreens

Well, this mystery has been solved; they are not just buzzwords. Titanium dioxide, and particularly zinc oxide, are sunscreen ingredients you need to look for on your next trip to the store.

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